My general preference for finding cheap, immediate thrills in all of life’s pleasures can often make me feel like a cultural simpleton. Like when struggling to describe an exquisite meal or a fine wine with anything more than “It tastes good,” I’m often frustrated with films that are overly restrained, valuing subtlety & measured storytelling over “delivering the goods.” The Little Stranger has put me in my place as a cultural simpleton like no other work since the frustratingly delayed costume drama payoffs of last year’s Lady Macbeth. The Little Stranger is a ghostly work of Gothic literature atmosphere with an incredibly well-weaved story of class resentment, familial grief, and male entitlement. It’s also stubbornly withholding, deliberately avoiding depiction of the action, sex, and violence that typically entertains at the movies. Intellectually, I know that this restrained, subtle approach to storytelling is supposed to “elevate” the deeper pleasures of the Gothic horror genre above the cheap-thrill payoffs of lesser works like Winchester & The Nun. The thing is, though, that I’ve seen recent films in its genre that have managed to do both – be intellectually nourishing & deliver the Gothic horror goods (namely Beast & Marrowbone) – so that The Little Stranger’s eagerness to withhold can only leave me frustrated. Whether or not something’s nourishing, I still want it to taste good.
Because its genre thrills are muted & deliberately obscured, The Little Stranger’s strengths are nested in its two central performances. Ruth Wilson stars as the once-wealthy heiress of an early 20th Century estate in shambles, living out a Little Edie-style tragic decline in a British precursor to Grey Gardens. Domhnall Gleeson plays a local doctor who grew up far less privileged in the community surrounding the estate, possessed by the opulence it once promised before a family tragedy thrust it into decline. At first, the pair are perfectly matched in their own “misery loves company” way, finding less than little joy in the decaying home that haunts them. It’s the divide in the ways the home haunts them that causes a deadly rift, however. She desperately wants to escape a toxic home life of a once-wealthy family brought to ruins by decades of grief resulted from a past, hushed tragedy. The doctor wants to establish himself as a belonging member of that family. He’s possessed by the memory of the estate’s former greatness, unable to recognize the poisonous rubble it is in the present. The stagnation & resentment resulting from this tension manifests in ghostly, violent phenomena in the haunted home that binds them together. However, that violence is mostly obscured from the audience, who instead are left to stew in the quiet, relentless bitterness Wilson & Gleeson trade in slow-moving blows.
There is an early, shocking act of violence in The Little Stranger that bathes the screen in a child’s blood, setting an expectation for a much more explicit, rattling film than what’s to come. Instead of matching the visual intensity of that violence throughout, director Lenny Abrahamson traffics in the same slow-simmering resentment & grief he explored in Room & Frank. The ghostly violence of a typical Gothic horror is maintained mostly as a background atmosphere that flavors the much subtler social violence of class & gender. The Gothic horror genre is used to explore the lingering grief of past trauma here, although that trauma is varied depending on the characters’ relationship to the haunted estate. What’s withheld is the physical manifestation of that haunting, even when the paranormal violence’s mysterious source is revealed. The Little Stranger’s central narrative is well-considered in its themes and exquisitely performed in its resentment-barbed exchanges between Wilson & Gleeson. I just find it frustrating that Abrahamson couldn’t find room for both the subtle nuance of that character tension & the immediate thrills of physical violence as promised in the first-act shock. It’s that tendency to withhold as if restraint were more respectable than indulgence that keeps The Little Stranger at good-not-great for me, the same way that the year’s cheap-thrills Gothic horrors with shallow, pointless stories to tell are hindered by their inverse imbalance.
For those following along at home:
2018 Gothic Horror Power Rankings
The Little Stranger
Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom
— Swampflix (@Swampflix) September 8, 2018